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Paul W. Tibbets Jr.: 1915 - 2007

Pilot launched Atomic Age over Hiroshima

November 02, 2007|Eric Malnic | Special to The Times

To the end of his days, Paul Warfield Tibbets Jr. believed that dropping the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima was a justifiable means of shortening World War II and preserving the lives of hundreds of thousands of American servicemen who military experts said might have died in a final Allied invasion of Japan.

For Tibbets, the pilot whose bombing run unleashed the devastating explosive force and insidious nuclear radiation that leveled two-thirds of the city and killed at least 80,000 people, there was never any need to apologize.

"I never lost a night's sleep over it," Tibbets said of the Aug. 6, 1945, attack.

The Army Air Forces officer died Thursday at his home in Columbus, Ohio. He was 92 and, according to his longtime friend Gerry Newhouse, had been in declining health over the last few years and died of heart failure.

To millions of detractors, the nuclear attack on Hiroshima was a cosmic example of man's inhumanity to man, an act that left the world teetering on the brink of self-annihilation.

"I made one great mistake in my life -- when I signed a letter to President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt recommending that an atomic bomb be made," said pioneering physicist Albert Einstein, one of the first to conceive of such a weapon.

Months after authorizing the attack, President Truman commiserated with Tibbets at the White House about the criticism over dropping the bomb.

"It was my decision," Truman told him. "You didn't have a choice."

On the 60th anniversary of the bombing, Tibbets told the Columbus Dispatch that he knew when he got the assignment "it was going to be an emotional thing."

"We had feelings, but we had to put them in the background. We knew it was going to kill people right and left," Tibbets said. "But my one driving interest was to do the best job I could so that we could end the killing as quickly as possible."

Tibbets was more than just the pilot of the propeller-driven, four-engine bomber that made the historic mission.

Described by his commandant, Gen. Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, as "the best damned pilot" in the Army Air Forces, Tibbets was hand-picked to lead the mysterious 509th Composite Group, the first military unit formed to wage nuclear war. Three days after the bombing of Hiroshima, another plane from the 509th leveled much of Nagasaki with another nuclear bomb, prompting the Japanese surrender.

Tibbets chose the planes that flew those missions -- specially reconfigured B-29s, then the largest operational aircraft on Earth, stripped of armament and armor plating to lighten them for their extended journeys.

He selected the combat veterans who manned the bombers. Many of the crewmen were personal friends who had flown missions with him over Nazi-occupied Western Europe and North Africa.

Tibbets picked an isolated air base straddling the Nevada-Utah border where the men of the 509th trained for their ultra-secret mission. And he drove his men hard, weeding out those who fell short or talked too much about what they were doing.

Proud, prickly and a perfectionist, Tibbets never doubted that he was the man for the job.

Born in Quincy, Ill., on Feb. 23, 1915, he moved to Florida with his parents while still a child. His father, a candy distributor, hired popular barnstormer Doug Davis to fly over Hialeah racetrack as a promotional stunt. Davis piloted the Waco biplane while the 12-year-old Tibbets tossed handfuls of Baby Ruth bars to the crowd below.

"From that day on, I knew I had to fly," Tibbets said.

Tibbets' father, a believer in discipline, shipped his son off to Western Military Academy in Alton, Ill., the next year. Tibbets liked the military life and despite subsequent premedical studies at the universities of Cincinnati and Florida, he enlisted as a flying cadet in 1937 with the Army Air Corps at Ft. Thomas, Ky.

By late summer 1942 -- nine months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that thrust America into World War II against the Axis powers of Germany, Japan and Italy -- Tibbets was flying some of the first U.S. bombing raids over German-held targets in Western Europe. Two months later, he led the bombing runs supporting the American landings in North Africa.

In early 1943, Tibbets was recalled to the United States to begin testing a new super bomber, the B-29. Within months, he was one of the nation's most experienced B-29 pilots.

In September 1944, Lt. Col. Tibbets was summoned to a secret military conclave in Colorado, where he was told that he had been selected over dozens of other candidates to head a unit called the 509th Composite Group.

"My job, in brief, was to wage atomic war," he wrote in his book, "Flight of the Enola Gay" (1989).

Tibbets searched for the perfect airfield to train his men and knew he had found it in Wendover, Utah. "It was remote in the truest sense," he wrote. "Surrounding the field were miles and miles of salt flats."

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